Threads on Willimantic's Main Street

by Andrew Piro

The Willimantic Brewing Company is housed in a vintage post office building, complete with Romanesque columns and the original engraving of "United States Post Office" adorning the front entrance. Much of the exterior of the building also remains unchanged, and, if not for the sign situated on the front lawn displaying a smirking frog grasping a beer mug, one might mistake the building for the government facility once housed there. The frog, one of many that embellish downtown Willimantic, sits perched on a mammoth spool of thread on Main Street. As Willimantic's semi-official mascot, the frogs watch over the downtown area like stone-faced soldiers. The spools themselves celebrate Willimantic's once booming thread industry. The old mill building, located on the east end of Main Street, now houses the Windham Textile Museum.

The exhibits there say as much about American gender roles as the production of thread: one displays images of urbane men, situated next to descriptions of their patented inventions and lucrative thread companies; another shows females at their work stations mid-stitch. Guess which sex held more power...

Most of the advertisements in the museum display a variation of domestic bliss, where women wear high heels, jewelry, and a dress while simultaneously sewing and watching their three children. The staged elegance of home décor and women's fashion takes on an even more ominous tone as nearby plaques explain that most women, unlike their male counterparts, could not even afford a sewing machine; certainly not the seamstresses who worked at the mills.

The museum displays a wide variety of sewing equipment, most of it made from iron. These triumphant relics of a by-gone time seem as much like trophies of the industrial era as they are displays of durability and craftsmanship. Many have ornate, etched designs boasting the Singer brand name. Amazingly, most of these machines are fully functional after all of the decades of use. Compared with the plastic-bound laptops of today-many obsolete in a matter of years-the sewing machines seem like such durable tools.

Perhaps the only items in the museum that show signs of age are the newspaper clippings and advertisements of the Willimantic Thread Company. Such artifacts convey the magnitude of Willimantic's thread industry, which is non-existent today. There are advertisements from the 1892 Chicago World's Fair showing Singer-made clothing from around the world; newspaper clippings about the company's activity in New York and New Orleans; and sheet music for patriotic, thread-themed songs (with song titles such as, "Battle of the Sewing Machines" and "Susie's Sewing Shirts for Soldiers").

The water of the Willimantic River, the main source of power for the mills, flows by old, dignified homes that once belonged to the mill's managers. These men looked out their bedroom windows at the industrious townspeople heading to work each morning. The scenery has changed slightly; cars whiz by, the frog statues from the nearby "frog bridge" overlook the river, and an ornamented footbridge connects each bank. Despite all this change, the river's dams still slow the flow of water.

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